The Contemporary Appeal to Tolerance – Letter to a fictional editor

Dear Editor:

            I found the latest issue of Modern Morals quite engaging, and more specifically the article titled Tolerance: America’s greatest virtue allowing for moral relativism. In it the author, James Jinks puts forth an argument for moral relativism from tolerance. Jinks attempts to show that moral relativism is true using as a foundation that moral absolutism (existence of objective morals) is intolerant. The moral relativist, in this case Jinks, claims that we should be tolerant of all cultures and individual’s differing moral principles. Going further Jinks argues that it is actually intolerant to question or criticize other individuals or people groups on moral grounds; leading us to believe that we should all be moral relativists.[1] On it’s face these statements seem agreeable and appealing but if given the opportunity it’s my contention that this argument is severely flawed for a number of reasons.

            First and foremost Jinks misrepresents what the definition of tolerance is. He defines tolerance as accepting all ideas and morals as being equal. He even states, “it is intolerant not to respect all ideas of others and other cultures.” But the notion that we must respect all ideas is foolish. For example, we would not respect the idea that the earth is flat or the dark side of the moon is made of cheese.[2] The person holding to these ideas should be respected but not the ideas themselves. In actuality tolerance is closer to what we know as civility. Tolerance relates to how we treat people with whom we disagree, not how we treat their ideas. Tolerance requires the respectful, courteous treatment of the person, no matter what their view, not that all views are equal or true.[3]

            Now that we have a corrected working definition of tolerance we can expose Jinks’ argument as being inconsistent as it relates to morality and ultimately self refuting. He claims that morality is cultural or even personal. This implies that there are no objective moral standards. However, the article is replete with objective moral statements. Jinks, speaking if Dr. Francis Beckwith a professor at Baylor University, says “Dr. Beckwith ought to stop criticizing relativists.” And, “Beckwith should just live and let live.”[4] Even his primary statement and focus of the article is asserting of an objective moral standard, “we should become moral relativists.” If moral relativism where true then both these claims would be false because Jinks is holding that tolerance is required of everyone, making tolerance the absolute standard. Therefore tolerance cannot be based upon relativism.[5] As a matter of fact at this point we see that the premise as a whole starts to collapse on itself because it’s self refuting. Jinks in arguing we should all be tolerant is implying that tolerance is an objective moral standard. His argument, and the stance of the moral relativists is rendered ineffective.

            The next flaw with Tolerance: America’s greatest virtue allowing for moral relativism is the notion that we should never criticize someone on moral grounds. But sometimes it is appropriate and necessary to criticize someone on moral grounds. For example, if someone tries to break into your house and steal your personal property, it is appropriate to object on moral grounds. But if Mr. Jinks and the moral relativist were correct we would have to simply dismiss the crime as that individual simply having a different standard of right and wrong. In that instance we do not have to be tolerant. It could even be argued that it is immoral in that instance to hold to the relativist’s definition of tolerance. It needs to also be noted that the statement that it’s not right to criticize some on moral grounds is itself and objective moral statement. You see Mr. Jinks, every step of the way has proved his own article wrong.

            In sum, the belief that tolerance is required of everyone is the right belief, proves relativism is false. If tolerance is required of everybody as the article asserts, then the absolute is tolerance, and the people holding the view are no longer relativists but absolutists. In light of this if you are going to establish tolerance, you can not base it upon a moral relativist frame work. And, if you are going to establish relativism, you can not establish it upon tolerance. It simply doesn’t work, proving the article completely self contradictory and does not lead to morality but away from it.

            “If we interpret normative relativism as requiring tolerance of other views, the whole theory is imperiled by inconsistency. The proposition that we ought to tolerate the views of others, or that it is right not to interfere with others, is precluded by the very strictures of the theory. Such a proposition bears all the marks of a non-relative account of moral rightness, one based on, but not reducible to, the cross-cultural findings of anthropologists…But if this moral principle [of tolerance] is recognized as valid, it can of course be employed as an instrument for criticizing such cultural practices as the denial of human rights to minorities and such beliefs as that of racial superiority. A moral commitment to tolerance of other practices and beliefs thus leads inexorably to the abandonment of normative relativism.” – Tom Beauchump[6]

Thank you for your time,

JRN


[1] Beckwith, Francis, “The Case For Moral Absolutes” Defending the Faith Lecture Series, (Biola University, La Mirada, CA, 2011).

[2] Beckwith, Francis, “The Case For Moral Absolutes

[3] Beckwith, Francis, “The Case For Moral Absolutes

[4] Beckwith, Francis, “The Case For Moral Absolutes

[5] Beckwith, Francis, “The Case For Moral Absolutes

[6] Beckwith, Francis, “The Case For Moral Absolutes

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